Visiting his mentally ill mother in a Swiss hospital is a memory that will stay with Toni Giugliano forever.
Her schizophrenia diagnosis was difficult for all the family and at times her young son didn’t know how to cope as he saw his mum going in and out of psychiatric wards.
“Often she wouldn’t recognise me or my dad,” he recalls. “She would get taken home and she would run away, we had to get police involved and we didn’t understand what was going on.”
His close experience with mental health care and the stigma sufferers face became even more pronounced when he was diagnosed with depression himself.
He believes his anxiety was in part prompted by coming out as gay as an 18-year-old student, and the struggles and doubts he felt over going “public” about something so personal.
But being handed anti-depressants by his GP without any discussion was part of the problem.
Now Mr Giugliano is using his own experiences to campaign for better mental health services.
The SNP Scottish Parliament candidate for Edinburgh West says the issues around mental health transcend party-politics. Speaking exclusively to the News, the 30-year-old candidly described the “heartbreaking” illness which came to define his childhood in suburban Glasgow after the family moved from Italy when he was seven.
He said: “I was witnessing things like my mum going into hospital for days, weeks, months, and going into psychiatric wards. It was the early 90s and things were very different back then. A lot has changed in that period of time.
“I felt that she was physically missing but also mentally missing. It was difficult for me to come to terms with that. Eventually I started getting to grips with the illness.”
When he was 15, Mr Giugliano’s parents were on holiday in Switzerland when his mum “took a turn”.
When he went to see her, he was shocked by what he saw. “I walked into this psychiatric hospital, she was in a hospital cell – she was locked in,” he said. “It was heartbreaking to see her in there, like a prisoner, and then to leave her on her own.
“Sometimes you blame yourself – but you can’t, because there is only so much you can do. She never really made a full recovery, there have been various phases over the years. After that experience I didn’t want to go in there again. I was quite scared by the whole experience.”
Mr Giugliano, whose parents now live back in Italy, is a public affairs manager for the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH).
Using his personal experiences to relate to the thousands of Scots facing challenging mental health conditions, he is pushing for a better understanding of such illnesses.
“If someone has been diagnosed with cancer, it is accepted that they need time to recover,” he said. “People who have a mental health problem need the same level of support.”
And as his “main campaign issue” in the lead-up to the May elections, he is keen to battle the stigma associated with mental health while also calling for better links between support services.
He said: “It wasn’t the fact that I was ashamed, it was more the fact that I had difficulty dealing with the stigma. It’s people’s reactions. And what I took from that is that people really need to talk about mental health. It’s an illness that needs treatment like any physical illness. That also had an impact on my mental health.”
In a bid to combat lengthy waiting times for psychological therapies in the NHS, Mr Giugliano believes there is an urgent need for more “social prescribing” among GPs and patients for alternatives such as walks and talking therapies.
Early intervention, preventative spending and education are also key, and he has vowed to push for a more “holistic” approach to mental health across Scotland.
A report on Edinburgh’s police released in October revealed that officers are dealing with an increasing number of vulnerable people who would be better served by other agencies, such as social workers.
This was illustrated by an incident in August last year, when a man suffering from suicidal thoughts jumped from North Bridge to the roof of Waverley station, breaking both legs. He did this after his family called police, who forced entry to his home and took him to a psychiatric clinic but doctors ruled he was fit to be detained. The man was kept in cells to appear at court, however the procurator fiscal said the man had not committed a crime and he was released without appearing in the dock.
Mr Giugliano said: “There needs to be more triage between the NHS, ambulance services, police and the local authority. We need more support with this, for services to work together.
“My entire life has been shaped by mental health and the impact it had on me. As a candidate I want to talk about these issues. If I’m elected, I want to highlight them in parliament. Even if my party is in government, there are still things that need to be improved.”
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